Navajo Nation Split On Grand Canyon Flight Restrictions
October 25, 2011

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Four months after the official public comment period ended, Grand Canyon officials are still waiting for the Navajo Nation to comment about flight noise and possible regulations to address it.

The tribe is split. A hearing will be held Wednesday in the hopes they can reach a consensus.

Navajo sheep herders have told the park that helicopter and plane noise negatively affects their livelihood. But some tribal members, including Navajo council delegate Walter Phelps, would like the tribe to be allowed to run air tours over the canyon.

"I mean, we need economic development. We need jobs," Phelps said. "Our people are in desperate need of any opportunity that can be developed."

Phelps said it’s only fair the Navajo receive the same treatment as the Hualapai Tribe on the west side of the canyon. Back in 2000, the Federal Aviation Administration conducted an economic hardship study and allowed the Hualapai to be exempt from the park's over flight restrictions.

Photo by Laurel Morales
Tourists wait to board a helicopter at Grand Canyon Airport for a tour of the national park.

Grand Canyon officials have urged the Navajo Tribe to submit its request for exemption right away, if it has one.

"If in fact they do officially request us to provide an exemption, we would take it under consideration in the preparation of our final EIS (Environmental Impact Statement)," said Mary Killeen, chief of planning and compliance for Grand Canyon National Park. "We would have to look at noise and other issues as well."

Killeen said the Navajo Nation would also have to submit an economic hardship study to the FAA to be approved. The tribe’s unemployment rate is 48 percent.

A noise-reduction policy for the canyon has been in the works for more than two decades. The draft proposal came out in February. The park service proposed allowing more tourist flights over the canyon. But operators would be required to replace their existing helicopters and planes with a quiet technology fleet.

The park service would also require several other changes, including no flights for at least one hour before sunset and after sunrise, and moving any non tourist flights outside of the park altogether.

The Grand Canyon hopes to come up with a final plan by early spring.